And the winner is…

It was quite difficult and we did a lot of back-and-forth, but Leslie and I have decided on our new home. We had two excellent — and very different — choices. How did we choose between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France? Let’s look at the data.

First, what’s so good about Ajijic? I know, some of you think there’s nothing good about anywhere in Mexico. That’s probably because you’ve never been where we’ve been. A good friend and former work colleague was one of those people until recently. We had lunch a few days ago and he said he enjoyed reading this blog, saying, “You’ve made Mexico three-dimensional for me. It was always one-dimensional.”

Ajijic is close to the U.S., so we can get back easily if need be, and friends and family can visit. The cost of living in Ajijic is quite favorable. Coupled with the good dollar-peso exchange rate, that makes Mexico a great place for North American retirees. And the Mexican people are warm and friendly; pass a local on the street and you’ll always hear “buenos dias.” Here are some other Ajijic positives:

  • Furnished rental housing is easily available.
  • Climate is mild with few extremes.
  • There’s a thriving English-speaking faith community.
  • There are many other expats in the area.
  • The Lake Chapala Society offers lots of services and events.
  • There are volunteer opportunities to remain active.
  • We have established contacts to help with our transition.
  • Health care is good. Most doctors are trained at the medical school in Guadalajara, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins.
  • There are a number of cultural opportunities, both in the Lake Chapala area and in Guadalajara, which has its own symphony orchestra and opera company.

There are some  downsides to Ajijic, though. Area roads are not as good as in Europe, and in most places you must drink bottled water. One big complaint is that in some parts of the Lake Chapala area you cannot flush toilet paper. It goes in a trash can instead. We would need housing in the newer areas where this is not an issue. A few other not-so-good things:

  • Intercity roads are limited.
  • Public transportation is not great. Intercity bus service is great, though.
  • Are there too many gringos in the area?
  • Right now there is uncertainty about the future of the Mexican government. The new president does not take office until December.
  • Locally grown vegetables must be treated before eating. It’s simple but time-consuming.
  • Infrastructure in the village is not great, and there is limited parking.

Montpellier also has lots of positives, most notably its energy. There’s a great vibe in this fast-growing city. Cultural opportunities abound — concerts, festivals, plays and other forms of entertainment. Food from local markets is of a higher quality than in the U.S., and there are great markets all over town. Leslie was able to eat cheese and bread in France. Her system has had a problem with both for years, and she was in heaven! Some other good points:

  • Public transportation is excellent.
  • It’s easy to reach other European countries we want to visit.
  • It’s close to some nice Mediterranean beaches.
  • We have established contacts with people who can help with our transition.
  • France is a first-world country with excellent infrastructure.
  • History is pretty much everywhere.
  • The World Health Organization ranks French health care as the best in the world.

But the cost of living in Montpellier is higher than in Mexico and with the unfavorable dollar-euro exchange rate, the dollar doesn’t go as far. Also, getting to France is a little more difficult and time-consuming, so we might get fewer visits from family and friends. And there’s this:

  • Furnished housing may be limited, and two-bedroom apartments are expensive and rare.
  • It gets a little chilly in winter. Last winter they had some snow, although it melted two days later.
  • There’s a seven-hour time difference from Chicago; nine from Stephanie in San Diego.

We took all that — and more — into consideration and agreed that by Nov. 1, we hope to be full-time residents of Ajijic, Mexico. We’ve already begun getting paperwork together for our permanent resident (retiree) visa application.

There were several factors, but mostly we think it will be easier to transition into living long-term in Mexico than anywhere else we’ve been. We’ve spent a lot of time there over the past two years and we have a network of friends to provide help and advice. Location and cost of living were also big factors. We’ll actually be closer to Stephanie than we were in the Chicago area, and friends and family have an easier time traveling to Mexico for visits. Plus, the dollar goes a lot further in Mexico, and the climate seems to be better. While we loved living in Montpellier, we simply felt Ajijic would be the best bet for our first attempt at being true expats.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we will live in Ajijic forever. Remember, we might decide at some point to get a change of scenery and relocate. Montpellier would probably be at the top of our list.

This blog, of course, will continue! We’ll keep you posted as the process develops.

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Strike up the band! We’re on our way to Ajijic.

Unique elements make Merida homes beautiful

There are some really cool aspects to traditional Yucatecan houses, and Leslie was quite taken with them. So I asked her if I could post this piece she wrote about pasta tiles and other neat stuff. Here’s Leslie’s contribution:

Although we could not remain in the first home we rented in Mérida, it had some architectural features typical of houses in this part of Mexico. This capital city of the Yucatan was established in the mid-1500s by the Spanish on a site already inhabited by the Maya. The home we rented was a simple house, built about 100 years ago during the henequen (sisal) or “green gold” boom.

It’s built, as most Mérida homes are, of “mamposteria,” a combination of cement block or stone and stucco.  For color, the walls are painted with a lime-based paint known as “cal.” The ceilings are often very high – as much as 25 feet.

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The ceiling in Casa Walker’s entry room. You see these ceilings everywhere, even in commercial buildings.

In the entry room of Casa Walker the ceiling was about 18 feet high. A combination of wood and iron or steel beams supports the ceiling. The look is striking, I think.

I was fascinated when I read about the “pasta tiles” in Mérida, and delighted to find them in this house. Pasta tiles are made of concrete, stamped and hand-painted. They’re used in homes throughout the Yucatan. The first pasta tiles were brought from Italy. Later, an industrious local imported the equipment to make and sell them to builders. That original business still exists in Mérida, and you can order tiles today – choose from their stock or design your own. They’re easy to keep clean. If you’re lucky enough to find a home that has been cared for since it was built, then you’ll find the tiles in good shape. We weren’t quite so lucky, but I thought they were beautiful. They were on all the floors and the walls of one bathroom.

As you can see (above), some are geometrical and some are quite fanciful. The gray one looks like feathers to me, and the red and green ones look like marble. The green tiles next to the brown and yellow ones remind me of ginko leaves.

No home in Mérida (at least those occupied by gringos) is complete without a pool to keep you cool. The pool at Casa Walker had yet another distinctive feature — a “chinked stone wall.”

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The “chinked stone” feature at Casa Walker.

The stones are hand-shaped and randomly placed. There is a funnel to recirculate, filter and deliver water into the pool. At its deepest it was about three feet. Fortunately, the water remains cool during the heat of the day and is quite refreshing.

Finally, Mérida homes are almost always connected, side-to-side. There’s no yard between you and your neighbor, just a shared wall — like in a condo building. So the house we lived in had no side windows, making it sort of “shotgun” style with a front door and a back door, along with some front and rear windows. Sometimes there were nice breezes, most of the time there were not. Fortunately, we had air conditioners in the kitchen and bedroom. Many Mexican families can’t afford air conditioning, so they sometimes leave their front doors open when they are at home.

The layout of Casa Walker, though, is a little odd — probably due to the way it was renovated. To get from the living area/kitchen to the bedroom was a challenge. First, there are double glass doors with scrolled metal grates to open and close (yet another typical feature), and the latching mechanism was difficult. Once you get through the door, take a stroll through the patio and past the pool to another glass door with scrolled metal grates, equally difficult to open and close. Oh, and to reach the outdoor shower or the bodega (storage room) that housed the washing machine (no dryer), there is yet another glass door with metal grates to open and close.

You’ll notice I said “outdoor shower.” The master bathroom shower was outdoors — very private behind high walls with lots of plants and vines, but outdoors. There was an elementary school around the corner from us, and while showering we often could hear children playing. It did have a nice rain shower head. I just couldn’t get over imagining Tarzan waiting his turn.

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Looking from the entry, with its pasta tile floor, through the TV room to the kitchen, and the iron-grate door to the patio and the bedrooms on the other side of the patio. The master was downstairs, the second bedroom above, up a spiral staircase.

There are some typical Yucatan house features that aren’t so nice. Since Mérida has no city sewer, every house has its own septic system. Unless you spend a gob of money to upgrade the septic system and re-plumb the entire house you know that that means – NO paper in the toilet. It goes into a canister, trash can, or other receptacle close by. So nice.

Despite the inconveniences we were able to make a home there for ourselves. Then, the super-hard bed (like sleeping on a concrete shelf) got the best of me. My back was giving me such pain that I went to see a doctor. She diagnosed a muscle contracture so strong that it had pulled my spine out of alignment. She prescribed a muscle relaxant and told me to find a different bed. After a few days in a hotel, we found the house we’re in now, Casa San Antonio. It’s much nicer, much less quirky, and the pool is neck deep. My back feels better, too.

Now, on to some more exploring of the Yucatan.

 

 

Rent or buy? The big question for ex-pats

I’ve already given you an idea about available real estate in San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, as well as our European stops. Now, even though Leslie and I won’t be relocating to Mérida, I want to give you an idea of what you might find if you were looking to rent or buy here. But first let’s back up a bit and talk about real estate in general.

Buying real estate in Mexico is very different from in the U.S., and not just because all the paperwork is in Spanish. This article from the Yucatan Times explains a lot about those differences. It’s a few years old but still valid. And here’s something from our favorite magazine, International Living. I can’t tell when this was first published, but the information is good. If you want to know more, just Google “buying real estate in Mexico.”

The big question is whether to rent or buy. Most gringos, especially those who live nine months or less in Mexico and the rest somewhere else, prefer to rent rather than buy. Dennis and Sandy, our friends from Puerto Vallarta, are renters. They actually have a five-year lease on a condo with an ocean view in one of the fancy high-rises in Marina Vallarta. It works for them because they go back to Wisconsin to spend the summer with family. Lots of people do that. When the rainy season arrives, they head north. We’ve met a number of people in all three cities, however, who are just beaming because their Mexican permanent residency has been approved. Those are the folks who buy, and they find they can afford a lot more house here in Mexico than they can in, let’s say, Naperville, Ill.

Now let’s get specific about Mérida. One downside to this city is the condition of some houses in the historic area, where lots of gringos live. Leslie and I have walked past facades of some very nice houses, and right next door is a hovel or an empty shell. The upside to that, and in general to living in Mérida, is that you are in a Mexican neighborhood with Mexican people as your neighbors, rather than a bunch of ex-pats. Our friend Frank Krieger says that’s why he bought in Santiago many years ago — the local people are warm, friendly, caring folks. And once you get to know them, they’ll do anything at all for you.

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See the houses down the block? Nice-looking, well-kept homes suitable for ex-pats, but on the same block with this place. And there are many houses that look a lot worse. This place could be vacant, or there could be a Mexican family living here. Many locals simply don’t have the resources to upgrade, or even paint, their homes. 

Yet another caveat regarding Mérida is the plumbing, especially in centro. The pipes are too small to handle toilet paper, so you can’t flush paper down the toilet. Instead, you carefully place used TP in the trash. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.

Two of our new friends from St. Luke’s Anglican Mission, Harrington and Ricci, remodeled a house and put in new plumbing and an updated septic system. Their bathrooms are now up to U.S. standards, but that’s still rare except in the newer parts of town and in new construction.

And if you’re looking for a fixer-upper here in Mérida, you’re in luck. You can score a two-bedroom home in the Santiago neighborhood for less than $50,000 USD, some as low as $35,000 USD. At that price, though, expect to spend at least $100,000 or more to make it livable — to improve the plumbing and put in a pool. But if you do that, you have the house you want in a good location at a bargain price.

Okay, renovation is not your style. Check out this four-bedroom, three-bath home in Santa Ana neighborhood, with pool, for $229,000. Then there’s a more modest two-bedroom, two-bath house, listed as a historic property for only $129,000 — not sure where it is, though. Of course, if you want to pay more, you might be interested in this two-bedroom, three-bath home for $460,000 USD. It’s stunning, and it would probably list for at least twice that price north of the border.

Rentals seem a bit expensive, especially in centro, because rental and property management agencies — such as Remixto, probably the biggest — consider them “vacation rentals,” so they can run over $100 a night USD. The houses on Yucatan Premier’s website, however, are all long-term rentals. Most are in North Mérida, so a car would be essential but at least you’d be close to Costco! This site is interesting because some properties are listed in pesos and some in dollars. Always pay in pesos, if you can. Right now, the property listed for $16,000 pesos a month would actually set you back merely $864 USD a month. And if the peso drops again, it would cost less.

There are a lot of good things about houses in Mérida. Pasta tiles, for example. The next post will tell you what a pasta tile is, and will have lots of great information Leslie has compiled about the unique architectural facets of homes here.

A few photos to leave you with:

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I mentioned the Santiago mercado in the last post but had no good photos. It was a little after 10 a.m. on a Saturday here, so the mercado is not very busy. Most people shop early. The lady on the left is my favorite vendor. She writes down the prices and adds them up for the gringo. That keeps me from sheepishly handing her a $500 peso bill to pay for lettuce and tomatoes that actually cost $30 pesos or less.
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Doesn’t this look great? Those are Mexican squashes, and they’re very good. Leslie says they are like a cross between and winter and summer squash. The locals use them as a side dish and to make soups. I think they taste a bit like zucchini.